A prisoner of the G.P.U. : Francesco Ghezzi

A prisoner of the G.P.U. : Francesco Ghezzi

I made Franciesco Ghezzi’s acquaintance in Moscow in 1921; that was at the time of the Third Congress of the Communist International and the First Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions, right at the start of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP), right after the butchery in Kronstadt, on the eve of the famine that was to wreak such horrific devastation in Russia the following winter.

Lots of delegations from lots of countries had been invited to take part in the proceedings. The influx of these revolutionaries, filled with ardour and hope, into the heartland of the first socialist revolution was a source of strength and delight. They were hoping to savour a climate of comradeship there and they actually did during the first few moments, before the apolitical debates and factional strife and the competition between tendencies dug ditches between people, distancing them from one another.

On that foundation of shared aspirations, people got along readily with one another and friendships were quickly formed; honest, open friendships were struck up above all between the rank and file, the simple militants who lacked reputation and titles and who had nothing to commend them to one another other than the look in their eyes, their expressions, their fists and all that flowed spontaneously and directly from their personalities.

Which is how the best “discoveries” came to be made not among the leaders or deputed spokesmen, but among the straightforward soldiery of the Revolution, among workers still in touch with the people.

Among the “discoveries” of that sort made by myself, there was none so welcome as Ghezzi.

His appearance did not deceive: rarely have I encountered such a direct and candid nature. This young man (just 27 years old at the time, although he looked a lot younger), even though ripened by the rough and tumble of a life of suffering and struggle, had retained a freshness and a wealth of feeling that were quite boyish. Initially I never even suspected what he had been through and only found out about it later, and not from him, as he was not the sort to seek the limelight. Here, in a few words, is what his life had been.


Francesco Ghezzi was born in Milan, that great business and industrial city in Italy, in 1894 and there, thanks to a large working class population, socialism had enjoyed a rapid spurt of growth but had soon fallen under the sway of Turati and reformists.

His father was a gardener and did not earn enough to support his family which was growing year on year. Francesco’s mother died when he was still a child; his father remarried and still the family grew. He had to earn his keep: at the age of seven, Francesco started to earn his keep and help out the family. By the age of twelve he was working in a big steel plant in Milan.

Confronted at an early age by the hard edge of society, he broke free of the beliefs of the family setting. His father was a Catholic and for a time had worked in a nunnery; little Francesco had a very sweet voice and the nuns gladly had him sing during the Mass; being very religious and blessed with a sense of beauty, he must have found religious ceremonies very impressive.

He coped physically with the demands of factory life and the factory was his moral salvation, wresting him away from the lies that lull the conscience to sleep, lies distilled by Catholicism, and it opened his eyes to underlying social injustices.

He was an inquisitive, clever child who went around with his eyes open. His questions, so often left unanswered inside the family, soon found an answer in his life in the factory: in order to complete his education, through conversations in the workshop and on the streets, his union membership afforded him access to revolutionary literature. But like all the Italian militants of my acquaintance, he was indebted for his education to life itself; to discussions by word of mouth in the workshops, on the streets, everywhere and to the action that was always wedded to talk in those quarters; at the age of fourteen, he was jailed for the first time and, predictably that first time was followed by many others. In Italy, young militants are more often behind bars than at large; their ardour and belief in the revolution takes them there. Ghezzi used to sing while in prison and carried out propaganda work there as elsewhere: in that sunny land don’t they carry out propaganda work everywhere, regardless of the circumstances?

And so he grew into a young man and his ideas were shaped at random by his experiences and by debate. In a backlash against his passive, Catholic upbringing, he developed a hatred of priests and above all of the policeman, the brutish instrument of capitalist oppression. A long-time employee in a printing press where the machinery was constantly rolling, he had been horrified by the wage he received, reckoning that it came close to ancient slavery. Later he picked up the trade of embosser, linked to goldsmithing, and his deep-seated sense of beauty found an outlet and opened his eyes to a different aspect of work. The lure of beauty, which might bring everybody joy in a better society, and pity and rebelliousness in the face of slavish toil in the workshop setting, an innate sense of justice – these were the main elements that helped him round off his character and led him to the ‘Camera del lavoro’ and the still seething angry masses of Milan, still mindful of the hateful 1898 massacres when General Bava Beccaris his turned artillery on defenceless crowds, even the penniless queuing for soup outside a convent.

Francesco joined the anarchists, those irregulars of the Revolution who were present at every labour demonstration and who could be seen using revolvers to fend off police brutality; they showed “scabs” no mercy and their swift response to all of society’s iniquities was a worry for social democrats who pressed for a more moderate approach and for taking power through the ballot box.

And then along came the war. Between the outbreak of hostilities and Italy’s entry into the fray, the country had an interval of nearly ten months, when the supporters and opponents of armed intervention kept running across one another on all sorts of terrains. All in all, the socialist movement held its ground, with just a few individuals defecting – people like Mussolini and Corridoni and several of the better known representatives of the revolutionary syndicalists – who defected to the interventionist camp and made common cause with the bourgeois nationalists. Not only did Ghezzi not hesitate for a second as to which course to follow, but even after war was declared, he fought on: a year later, he was in the Piazza del Duomo in Milan with the city’s women, there to shout out what they thought of the king and his government; arrested and put through the mill, all he thought about was his pals locked in their cells, asking in vain for a little water to wash their swollen faces.
And then it was prison again, for months on end, and hunger and cold, but as he remembered it, all of these sufferings were eclipsed by his pride at having fought against the war. On his release he crossed the Alps in spite of all the dangers such a trip entailed at that point; there was simply no way that he was willing to take part in that war. In petit bourgeois Switzerland, he and other indomitable youngsters scandalized even the usual guests at the painstaking People’s House in Zurich. They plotted and talked and acted and it was plain that their issue was not just with the Italian government but with all capitalist governments. Again, he was arrested and faced a further trial during which, in that all too classical ploy, the bourgeois courts lumped together undiluted revolutionaries with adventurers, spies and informers, in the hope of bringing them into disrepute. But that too provided yet another stage from which to announce his anarchist beliefs. The charges collapsed and Ghezzi was able to resume his existence as an itinerant outlaw.

When the war ended, prime minister Nitti was obliged to grant a general amnesty (otherwise, there would not have been enough prisons in Italy to hold all those who had rebelled against the unpopular war). Francesco Ghezzi promptly returned. That was a great period of social unrest following the war and it was about to bring Italy within an ace of Revolution.

The highpoint came with the factory seizures in September 1920. Like every sound militant, Ghezzi was at his post and was to stay there right to the end. Like Malatesta, he exhorted his comrades not to withdraw from the occupied factories, arguing that the unions should hold them and defend them. The movement needed to be broadened and the cogs of the State attacked. But the reformist leaders in charge of the CGL crumbled, handing over to the Socialist Party leadership which, though made up for the most part of members of the future Communist Party, also buckled and did not dare place itself at the heads of the movement. The moment of truth had passed, the workers were obliged to pull out of the factories, crestfallen. The wheel of fortune had turned: the capitalist bourgeoisie, having been through an ordeal, regained its courage; with its assistance, fascism, the instrument of the reaction, gained ground.

It was not long before they were arresting Malatesta, the most popular figure among the toiling masses, thanks to his long record as an unblemished activist, his sincerity and his unerring bravery. The masses were still inclined to hit back at that point, but the socialist leaders, who still reckoned that they were safe, held them back: Serrati, who was the most influential Socialist Party boss at the time, cautioned the crowds against mounting demonstrations in favour of anyone, no matter how endearing.  The anarchists would be the only ones to hit back: and they were to do so impulsively, individually, their actions uncoordinated and in a manner that the bourgeoisie that was tilting more and more in the direction of fascism was to exploit for its own purposes. A bomb planted in the Diana music-hall in Milan, a site frequented by revellers and idlers, claimed a huge number of lives. Ghezzi had had nothing to do with this outrage but, being well known among the Milan anarchists, they went after him. On the run, he crossed back over the border. By 1921 he was in Russia with two of his comrades, as a delegate from the Italian Syndicalist Union (USI) – an association of unions and Camere del Lavoro in which anarcho-syndicalism prevailed – attending the first Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions.

So much for the experience that Ghezzi had built up over his relatively lengthy career as a militant, by the time I met him in Moscow.

He arrived there full of enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution as a whole; he had been keenly monitoring its development, initially from Switzerland and then from Italy; but he arrived there with his eyes wide open, determined to learn and understand and to see the shadows as well as the light; he was not to be mistaken for one there to court the new regime; he was not ready to ascribe historic significance to the fact that a proletarian like himself was climbing stairs or strolling corridors familiar to the tsar and his retinue a few years before (as I witnessed one naïve soul do in a Parisian workers’ paper); nor was he one of those delegates who made do with shuttling between the Hotel Lux and the Kremlin and who waited for State cars to carry them on that short trip (I have known many of that sort). He walked through the Moscow streets and tried to make contact with the population and his great talent for languages served him well there; he used to take part in “communist Saturdays”, afternoons during which activists would willingly and without payment donate their labours to the community. As a real revolutionary with plenty of struggles to his credit already, he felt duty-bound to make a thorough study of the revolution and to unearth both its shortcomings and its successes, rather than embrace them all, en bloc, blindly and in accordance with a formula that has long been in fashion.

Having said what I have said about Ghezzi’s past record and his leanings, anyone conversant with the history of the Russian Revolution will have no difficulty guessing what his impressions were. In trade union terms, he championed the autonomy of labour associations against meddling by the CP, whose ulterior motives were even then easily guessed. He was a supporter of cooperation within strict limits, rather than of deference.

Of the various strands even then evident within the CP, his sympathies were with the Workers’ Opposition, of Kollontai,. Shliapnikov, etc., of course. It had been crushed at the 10th Congress of the Russian CP and distribution of Kollontai’s remarkable pamphlet “The Workers’ Opposition” had been halted: but Ghezzi had managed to get wind of the pamphlet, thanks to the hand-written translation by a French communist (that important document, which had remained virtually unknown, was published much later in La Revue anarchiste, which later ceased publication)[1]. Not that his criticisms of the Bolshevik leadership prevented him from acknowledging their worth: on the first occasion when he heard Lenin speak, he was enthused by how unaffected and direct his manner had been, how devoid of affectation and oratorical ploys, as Lenin had set out his stall.  “That’s what needs saying! That’s the way to talk!” he exclaimed, struck by the whole human impact of this great experiment and this great disinterested force.

By 1922 Ghezzi was in Germany. The Italian government, by then entirely under fascist domination, sought to have him extradited. The Social Democrat minister Severing jailed him pending hand-over. He served seven months in the Moabit prison in Berlin: but working-class opinion was mobilized, even the communists were campaigning and Rote Fahne newspaper orchestrated an active campaign that created ripples abroad and workers’ Russia claimed Ghezzi as one of its own citizens. The German State decided that he should be released, on condition that he quit its territory promptly.

He happily returned to Russia, because, having been in contact with her wonderful, original people with all that potential for the future, he was keen to deepen his knowledge of them and mix with them at closer quarters. He went on to perfect his knowledge of the language and partook of their lives. Like so many other political refugees, he could have had an easy time of it, with good accommodation and an easy job, by embracing the progress made by the government. But he wanted to carry on with his life as a proletarian, rubbing shoulders with the workers on the land and in the factories. In order to rebuild his health which had been compromised by his time in prison in Germany, and to combat the TB gnawing away at him, he headed for southern Russia and the Crimea. One Russian comrade who was close to him during those years, gave me this description of his life:

“There he was, joyously farming away on a little plot of land alongside a squad of fellow-mavericks, withholding a few vegetables and the odd fruit from the State taxmen and the pressures brought to bear by the “NEPmen”, on order to survive and feed those who would come down from Moscow in the north to seek some ease for lungs destroyed by the factories of the employer-State. And in the Yalta of the NEP, the Yalta of the high-ranking officials taking their ease in the sanatoria there, the Yalta of Party hacks taking the cure witnessed Ghezzi’s squad strolling along the dockside and promenades, in discussion and bickering; they included sound communists with a belief of their own in the new society, but who were not parasites; men who loved the Russian Revolution, but who were ill at ease at seeing it fade; men who had chosen their path and for whom Ghezzi’s garden was just a sun-kissed slice of greenery where they might pass a few days, but from where they would rush back to the factories and mines and roads of Russia to badger the employer-State.

Ghezzi returned to Moscow, eager to get back into activity; the authorities did not then dare to tell him what they thought of him, but they denied him work; to no avail he spent weeks and months traipsing through the employment offices as a unionized worker. It was a case of: Be a believer or croak!

But from beneath the hatred, trickery was stirring! In the end the bread and the work denied you were forthcoming. Ghezzi, working at Metallolamp, was operating a lathe and panel-beating without let-up.

To workers’ enemies besmirching the name of communist, Ghezzi scornfully, plainly and openly spoke his mind: the GPU hesitated for a long time, faced with a man who hid nothing of his views and then, in the belief that the time had come, it swooped.

Ghezzi, they say, has been locked up in Suzdal, but no one has set eyes on him since his arrest; he is shrouded in the completest secrecy; there are dark designs afoot; they mean to send him to Verkhne-Uralsk, a prison hundreds of kilometres removed from any railway line and there, in that remoteness, the end will come: lungs undermined by Italian, Swiss and German prisons will fail and, all unbeknownst to anyone, he is to be liquidated. When all is said and done. what does it matter to him! He was well aware that he would finish up this way at some point, but for those of us who are free, who can raise our voices, let us, comrades, scream Help! everywhere. Is that not the least that we can do?”

What can I add to this stirring call, coming from a worker, a revolutionary as unblemished as Ghezzi and who has also sampled imprisonment in Russia for having championed the rights of workers against the intrusive bureaucracy, against Johnny-come-lately Communists, against those making capital out of the Revolution. 

Ghezzi’s cause is the cause of the entire proletariat through which and for which the Revolution was made and which should come to its defence, not only in the face of its external enemies but also from the exploiters and usurpers within. Defence of Ghezzi is not a defence of someone from this or that party, this or that faction; it is a defence of the proletariat in its striving for emancipation, self-education and the building of a new society and consolidation of its gains. Ghezzi’s entire life has been an exercise in just such an effort: through a thousand material difficulties, he has been relentlessly educating himself, improving himself morally and intellectually, not for his own pleasure, but for the good of his entire class and the success of a better society. Having come to understand lately that his nomadic existence, in preventing him from pursuing coordinated studies, had left gaps in his social education, he had made up his mind to avail of his opportunities, opportunities which the Soviet Republic alone affords to workers, to pursue higher education (one of the real achievements of the Revolution) and he was preparing to go to university as a student at the end of his demanding day of work at the factory. And then the GPU arrested him.

There is no better symbol of the opposition to the complete emancipation of the workers coming from the new class of oppressors that has emerged from among the cadres of the Communist Party. From fascism to soviet bureaucracy via social-patriotism, Ghezzi will have come under attack from all the forces of reaction opposing the promotion of proletarians; if his brethren in every land do not succeed in snatching him away from the threat of death hanging over him, they are going to have to sustain a serious defeat.


From La Revolution proletarienne, No 84, 15 July 1929 https://bataillesocialiste.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/un-prisonnier-du-guepeou-francesco-ghezzi-1929/

KSL note

1, serialised from November 1923 on, see https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k96168502?rk=21459;2

Translated by: Paul Sharkey.